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Comparing E Asian and SE Asian Buddhism

Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal (2009, 22:97-124)
Taipei: Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies
中華佛學學報第二十二期 頁97-124 (民國九十八年),臺北:中華佛學研究所
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism:
Looking at Traditional China from the Margins
John R. McRae
Shinnyo-en Visiting Professor, Stanford University
Based on extensive geographic and ecological similarities, albeit of quite different scale, I
compare the Buddhist traditions of East Asia and continental Southeast Asia during the first
and second millenia of the common era. I show that East Asian Buddhism is older and far
better documented than its Southeast Asian counterpart, and that the enterprise of translation
meant that it evolved over time in East Asia in an organic fashion. Buddhism was certainly
present in Southeast Asia during the first millenium, but the nature and extent of its presence
there is difficult to gauge. In addition, during the second millenium Buddhism in continental
Southeast Asia came to emphasize the Pāli canon as the standard by which religious
authenticity was to be judged, based on shared conceptions of religious purity and orthodoxy.
Based on this analysis I speculate that there is a parallel between the East Asian emphasis on
a discovery model of spiritual training and its organic historical development, and a similar
parallel in Southeast Asian Buddhism between a purification model of individual perfection
that resembles what occurs there in the demands for orthodoxy in social movements. Finally,
I suggest that the analysis of publically chartered religious foundations in the formation of
Southeast Asian fiduciary institutions may suggest new avenues for the study of East Asian
Buddhism, where negative Confucian models of the economic dimensions of religion have
dominated scholarship to date.
East Asian Buddhism,
Southeast Asian
98 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
關鍵字: 東亞佛教、東南亞佛教、本土化、中國化、梵語化
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 99
Why and how should we compare East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism? First, continental
Southeast Asia constitutes the far southern zone of East Asia. This geo-ecological zone to the
far south of the Chinese heartland is not an amorphous borderland of remote mountains and
infectious swamps, as Chinese texts sometimes stereotypically portrayed it, and it will do us
well to look with a more critical gaze at the dynamics and distinctions of Buddhism within
the region. Second, there are illuminating parallels and contrasts between the ecological zones
of continental Southeast Asia and those of East Asia. That is, the zones of both regions are
defined by river systems divided by relatively porous mountainous boundaries, leading to
similar patterns of agricultural development and human settlement. However, the smaller scale
of the Southeast Asian zones and the lack of a single dominating cultural/ethnic group, such
as the Hàn Chinese in East Asia, has made for much more diverse patterns of governance
and religion. Third, the issues of “indianization”, the use of Sanskrit and Pāli, and the role
of Buddhism in Southeast Asia also demonstrate intriguing parallels and contrasts with
“sinicization” (and similar secondary patterns), the use of literary Chinese, and the role of the
religion in East Asia. Fourth, Mahāyāna Buddhism flourished for a time both on the eastern part
of the Southeast Asian continent and in the islands of Sumatra and elsewhere, and although the
history of Mahāyāna in Southeast Asia is still largely undocumented there were demonstrable
connections between it and Buddhism in China and Japan.
The basic question here is, what was the relationship between transcendence and power in
the Buddhism of early imperial (i.e., from the Hàn through the Five Dynasties, or the “long
first millenium”) and late imperial (from the Sòng through the Qīng, or the “long second
millenium”) East Asia? That is, the theoretical and practical systems of Buddhism present
the religion’s highest goal as one of total liberation from the realm of saṃsāra, or complete
transcendence of the mundane world. Given this profound orientation toward escaping the
shackles that inevitably accompany ordinary life, how is it that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
could also represent the highest forms of power within that mundane world? In other words,
how is it possible that the famously otherworldly religion of Buddhism could provide a rhetoric
for the systematic understanding of the power relationships of ordinary life, or at the very least
provide a set of deities thought (at least by some people) to occupy the highest rungs of the
pantheon of power within East Asian societies?
Unraveling the relationship between transcendence and power in East Asian Buddhism
is no simple matter, and as it happens the best way to begin is to look outside East Asian
Buddhism for comparative insight. Indeed, it is only by comparing the Buddhisms of East
Asia and continental Southeast Asia that we will be able to address — and provide a tentative
answer to —the fundamental question posed above regarding the integral relationship between
transcendence and power manifested throughout East Asian Buddhist history. There is no
particular logical imperative as to why the Buddhism of Southeast Asia should provide us
with the comparative insight that we need for this task, but as we shall see there is a certain
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serendipity involving the intellectual agenda of the present paper and the data available. To see
how this works out, we will begin with the ecological framework and then move on to issues
of religious history. By doing so, we will make possible new insights not limited to the issue
of power and transcendence alone, but widely relevant to the understanding of Buddhism in
world historical context.
The Zones of Continental Southeast Asia:
Three River Systems and a Coastline
Southeast Asia is usually discussed in terms of two components: its continental portion, divided
among the modern states of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and
its many islands, which now host the administrations of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines,
and other smaller regimes. Our focus here will be on continental Southeast Asia, with only
occasional references to the insular portion of this region. Although Vietnam also functioned
as part of the East Asian cultural sphere, here we will note only how the early states within its
modern borders operated within the context of Southeast Asia. In addition, although Mahāyāna
Buddhism flourished from the fifth through at least the eighth or ninth century in what is now
Cambodia and the islands of Sumatra and Java, we lack the archaeological evidence to say
very much about how it functioned in those widely separated locations. Indeed, often the
locations of events described in written texts cannot be pinpointed authoritatively, and clear
references to Mahāyāna Buddhism in Southeast Asia are quite limited. For these reasons, I will
not discuss insular Southeast Asian Buddhism here.
Just as the heart of East Asia consists of two massive river systems, the Yellow and
Yángzǐ River zones, so is the heart of continental Southeast Asia defined by rivers: the
Irrawaddy/Salween, the Chao Phraya, and the Mekong. Whereas the Yellow and Yángzǐ flow
predominately from west to east through ecologically quite different terrains, the major rivers
of Southeast Asia flow, also in roughly parallel fashion, from similar mountainous headwaters
through a succession of increasingly large plains toward the ocean to the south. The distinctive
features of the Southeast Asian river systems are the result of the breadth of their catchment
areas and the navigability of the rivers themselves. That is, the Irrawaddy and Salween Rivers
drain a relatively narrow area relative to that of the Chao Phraya and Mekong, while traffic
along the middle reaches of the Mekong are hampered by two sets of rapids. Therefore, the
relatively smaller scale of the Irrawaddy/Salween zone (for convenience, below I will refer to
these neighboring river systems simply as the Irrawaddy zone) limited the agricultural base
from which the second-millenium Burmese state could draw, while difficulties in transport
between upland areas and the ocean restricted the economic growth of the second-millenium
Cambodian state. For all three river systems, the dry upland areas were more amenable to
agricultural development in the first millenium, and the extension of irrigation systems to the
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 101
marshes and swamps of the deltas only occurred with concerted effort in the second millenium,
especially from the fifteenth century onward.
If the three river systems of continental Southeast Asia define north-south zones that
roughly parallel the east-west zones of East Asia, then the mountainous headwaters to the
north and the coastal zone of modern Vietnam to the east correspond very roughly to the far
northern and far southern zones. The comparison is inexact, but it is a useful metaphor here.
Like the far northern zone of East Asia, the mountainous region dividing East and Southeast
Asia was the source of both militarily and culturally dominant ethnic incursions toward the
south. That is, from about the ninth century Burman tribes began moving into the Irrawaddy
zone, overwhelming the area’s current residents and establishing the cultural foundations of
the later Burmese state, while Tai peoples began to move west and south from their original
homeland between modern Vietnam and China, bringing with them superior patterns of rice
agriculture that helped them gain control of the entire Chao Phraya zone and eventually much
of the Mekong zone as well. (Here I use the label “Tai” to refer to a number of ethnic groups
defined by similar language and culture, and “Thai” to refer to the specific group that eventually
achieved dominance in the Chao Phraya zone.)
The eastern boundary of the Mekong zone (not including the massive swamplands of the
southern delta, which were not developed for agriculture until centuries later) was marked by
competition with the coastal zone, which came to be controlled by states whose cultural and
political identities developed in contact and competition with the Chinese to the north. Indeed,
the fact that so little Chinese influence is apparent in mainland Southeast Asia up until the late
eighteenth century — the absence of Chinese elements in the archaeological remains is quite
striking — must have been due in part to the preoccupation of successive Chinese governments
with the tantalizing riches of the coastal zone. There was considerable overland trade — as
well as warfare — between people in the three major river systems and the Nánzhào and
later kingdoms of Yúnnán, of course, but adopting Chinese culture never seems to have been
viewed as a serious option for Southeast Asian rulers and their governments. Indeed, in this
paper we will encounter one case in which a policy of “indianization” appears to have been
adopted, at least in part, in order to avoid Chinese domination (see the discussion of Línyì a
few paragraphs below).
Buddhism in Continental Southeast Asia
Traditional accounts of the history of Buddhism in continental Southeast Asia inevitably begin
with Emperor Aśoka of India, who is depicted as a great patron of Buddhism in Buddhist
legends. Aśoka is supposed to have sent two monks, Soṇa and Uttara, to a place known as
Suvarṇabhūmi (or Suvaṇṇabhūmi in Pāli), the “golden land”, and Southeast Asian kingdoms
of the second millenium frequently claimed this label as referring to their own realms. The
term is used in Indian sources, however, only as a general term for a region vaguely located
102 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
in the east, and there is no basis for identifying Suvarṇabhūmi with any particular Southeast
Asian locale. In addition, even if the two monks — or any number of missionaries — had in
fact been sent by Aśoka, or even by rulers of subsequent centuries invoking his memory, there
is no evidence of their activities or impact in Southeast Asia. And, as we shall see, it would be
doubly invalid to take their mission as the initial establishment of what became known many
centuries later as “Theravāda Buddhism”.
A. The First Millenium: A Smattering of Evidence
There is a paucity of information about Buddhism in Southeast Asia in the first millenium,
and what little we do know paints a picture very different from that for Buddhism in East
Asia. First, in contrast to the truly vast quantities of textual, art historical, and archaeological
evidence available about East Asian Buddhism, for Buddhism in Southeast Asia in the first
millenium we have only (a) a number of statues and sculpted images, plus building foundations
and other archaeological finds; (b) a substantial number of inscriptions in Sanskrit, Pāli, and
indigenous languages, some quoting Buddhist texts and some describing donations to early
monastic estates; and (c) references to Southeast Asian kingdoms and events in roughly contemporaneous Chinese and Japanese sources. The inscriptions and sculptures date from the fifth
century CE and after; Buddhist materials are found throughout the region, but evidence of the
Mahāyāna is almost entirely limited to the Mekong system and to insular Southeast Asia.
Artistic and archaeological finds indicate a Buddhist presence in various locations
throughout the subcontinent beginning as early as the first to second centuries CE. This
exceptionally early date (the radiocarbon dating is ambiguous) is for an ivory comb decorated
with a goose, two horses, and Buddhist symbols found at Chansen in the lower Chao Phraya
region. No other archaeological evidence for Buddhism can be reliably dated to such an early
period, and most Buddhist remains belonging to the so-called Dvāravatī style (found at sites
scattered throughout the lower Chao Phraya area) date from the fifth century or later. By this
time there are numerous stone images of Buddhas (and stylistically identical images of Viṣṇu),
dharmacakras or “wheels of the Dharma”, and stone foundations of Buddhist buildings and
other structures — the remains of circular stūpas, square caityas, and the bases of vihāras or
meeting halls (to use the later Southeast Asian meaning of this word). The largest Dvāravatī
settlement, at Nakhon Pathom, had a rectangular plan of about 3,700 by 2000 meters, with
Buddhist structures both inside and outside the city walls and the surrounding moat. It is clear
that Buddhism had been adopted by the centralized political authority and elite society in this
and other such cities, although there is no evidence for any state-level administration unifying
the various Dvāravatī sites.
Inscriptions do reveal a distinction in the type of Buddhism adopted in eastern vs. western
Southeast Asia. Although there are Sanskrit and Pāli inscriptions throughout the region — and
even where Pāli was used for scriptural purposes in Sri Lanka, some inscriptions there were
written in Sanskrit — both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhist inscriptions appear in the
coastal and Mekong zones (and also in Sumatra and other parts of insular Southeast Asia),
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 103
while only traces of the Mahāyāna can be found in the Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy zones.
And, while some of the inscriptions at Angkor refer to Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrines such as
śūnyatā, “emptiness”, there is only a single known inscription that actually quotes a Mahāyāna
text in continental Southeast Asia.
Inscriptions show that by the end of the first millenium CE a range of texts from various
sections of the Pāli canon had been transmitted to continental Southeast Asia. One inscription
tentatively dated to the ninth century quotes a brief text composed in Sri Lanka, thus documenting
communication between Saṅgha members in that island kingdom and the continent. The style
of script used most frequently in Southeast Asian inscriptions is usually said to be a variant of
that used in eastern India, but recently a connection has been established with western India as
well. Judging from these divergent details, there were multiple sources for early Buddhism in
continental Southeast Asia.
When considering the initial transmission of Buddhism to Southeast Asia, it is important
to remember that Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism, and other forms of Indian religion were also prevalent
in the region, and that the use of Sanskrit for political administration in the region had much
in common with that in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, regimes throughout southern South
Asia and Southeast Asia adopted Sanskrit for public political expression beginning around
300 CE (about a century later in Southeast Asia) and ending around 1300. The choice of
the classical language for political purposes was totally unprecedented in Indian history, and
it occurred virtually simultaneously throughout the entire region. If we focus solely on the
Southeast Asian use of Sanskrit — for inscriptions on temples and other public buildings and
monuments — one seeming contradiction is evident. The inscriptions there were composed
in grammatically correct and artistically elegant Sanskrit, but no other non-political uses of
the language (e.g., love poetry, drama, essays, or grammars) have been discovered there.
From this and other evidence it is clear that professional communities of Sanskrit scholars
(often referred to as Brahmans, although they may have been local families descended from
Indian ancestors) served at Southeast Asian courts, providing rulers with both literary and
administrative expertise.
In earlier scholarship this participation of Southeast Asian states in what has been called the
“Sanskrit cosmopolis” would have been interpreted as an example of “indianization”, a term
derived from the colonial experience of modern times and implying that cultural influence
flowed into Southeast Asia from the superior civilization of the South Asian subcontinent.
Instead of adopting this postcolonial prejudice regarding the supposedly “higher” civilization
of ancient India, it is more useful to appreciate how local rulers and ruling elites throughout
the diverse cultures of the two areas — the geographical difference between the two being
irrelevant in this regard, given that the populations of both southern South Asia and Southeast
Asia were speakers of non-Indo-Aryan languages — might have benefitted from participating
in a broader community of discourse based on adoption of the Sanskrit language and Indic
governmental strategies. That local regimes and their rulers were the active agents in making
the selection of Sanskrit linguistic usage and Indic administrative technologies may be inferred
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from the facts that (a) such a limited cross-section of the Indian religious repertoire was
available in Southeast Asia, and that (b) combinations of deities and cults (the best example
being a synthesis of Śiva and Viṣṇu) which would have been unthinkable for South Asia in this
period occurred so commonly in Southeast Asia.
The earliest decision to adopt Sanskrit terminology seems to have occurred in the state of
Línyì along the southeastern coast. The regime was founded by a local family in 270, and in
284 the second ruler sent its first official embassy to the Chinese court in Jiànkāng (i.e., modern
Nánjīng) — that is, to the capital itself, not just to the Chinese outpost in Jiāozhǐ. When this
second ruler died, his Chinese advisor took the helm, but when he communicated with the
Chinese court he did so in a “barbarian” script, presumably using Sanskrit. Two generations
later the former advisor’s grandson adopted Sanskrit names for the state’s important cities
(hence along the coast can be found the cities Indrapura, Amaravati, Vijaya, Kauthara, and
Panduanga!) and formally adopted the Hindu religion. The rulers of this emergent kingdom
were sensitive to the ebb-and-flow of dynastic power in China, but they chose to identify
themselves as “foreign” to its cultural realm. Staving off pressure from China to the north was
not merely a cultural nicety, since Línyì and other coastal states became wealthy by preying on
ships trading with China and its regional outposts, much as the nomads of the far northern zone
preyed on Silk Road trading caravans and sedentary Chinese agricultural populations.
There may have been other issues involved in the decision to adopt Sanskrit titles, and of
course Sanskritization might have been initiated prior to the inheritance of power by rulers of
Chinese ethnic background. Nevertheless, for students of East Asian Buddhism it is striking
that members of a Chinese lineage — or more specifically the descendants of a Chinese ruler,
many of whose maternal relatives were no doubt of local origin — used Sanskritization to
establish a local identity.
For our purposes the most useful data concerning Buddhism in first-millenium Southeast
Asia comes from Chinese sources. These tell of diplomatic relations between the Fúnán
confederation of chiefdoms of the lower Mekong region (which the Chinese texts present as a
single state) and the Southern Qí and Liáng regimes (479–502 and 502–51, respectively) with
their capital at Jiànkāng. In 484 an Indian monk named Nāgasena, who had earlier traveled
from Guǎngzhōu to Fúnán with news of a Chinese sage-emperor ruling to the north, was sent
from Fúnán to the Southern Qí court in an (apparently unsuccessful) attempt to enlist military
support. He took with him a gold-inlaid image of a dragon-king, a sandalwood Buddha image,
and two small ivory stūpas. Nāgasena reported that the Fúnán royal court was devoted to Śiva,
but that it allowed Buddhism to flourish as well. (The history of the Southern Qí includes a
poetical description of religion in Fúnán provided by this monk.) In 503 Fúnán sent additional
Buddhist icons to the newly established Liáng court, and about the same time a monk from
Fúnán named Mantrasena (sometimes referred to in Chinese simply as “Mantra”) brought a
large number of Indic texts to Jiànkāng. Mantrasena was considered by the Chinese to have
been a less-than-proficient translator, but another monk from Fúnán named Saṅghapāla (460–
524) was better thought of and revised some of the other monk’s work.
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 105
Originally a student of Abhidharma and Vinaya and gifted in many languages, while in
China Saṅghapāla became a student of the Indian monk Guṇabhadra, under whom he studied
Mahāyāna Buddhism. Beginning in 506, Saṅghapāla spent the remaining 17 years of his life
working in a chapel in the palace and four other imperially supported locations, producing
eleven translations totalling 48 fascicles. The most important of these were the Sūtra on King
Aśoka and the Treatise on the Path to Emancipation (Vimuttimagga), the latter of which is one
of only two works in the Chinese Buddhist canon thought to have been translated from Pāli.
For the beginning of both these translation projects, Emperor Wǔ himself attended and “held
the brush” to note down the initial rendering, and afterward he assigned the monks Bǎochāng,
Huìzhāo, Sēngzhì, and Fǎyún, as well as the layman Yuǎn Tányǔn, to assist in the translation
In 539 Liáng Emperor Wǔ sent the monk Bǎoyún to Fúnán after a lock of the Buddha’s
hair said to be there — a potent relic, no doubt, given that it was supposedly twelve feet
long! Emperor Wǔ also sent a request that Fúnán send another translator, in response to which
the Fúnán authorities dispatched Paramārtha (499–569), who was to become one of the most
important translators in East Asian Buddhist history. Paramārtha arrived at the Liáng court in
548, less than a year before Emperor Wǔ was assassinated and the regime sent into turmoil.
Paramārtha’s biography also mentions another monk from Fúnán, Subhūti (d.u.), who did
translation work in the Liáng capital. Incidentally, a Fúnán monk known in Japanese as Buttetsu
is said to have traveled first to India and then to Japan, in company with an Indian monk named
Nāgasena (not the same as the fifth-century monk mentioned just above, of course!), where
in 752 the latter presided over the eye-opening ceremony of the Great Buddha established by
Emperor Shōmu in Nara.
Of all the texts these monks translated, some were certainly brought from Southeast Asia
— but sadly there is no way to tell which ones! Although caution is thus necessary, their overall
output accords with our other knowledge of Southeast Asian Buddhism at the time, implying
interest in Mahāyāna and proto-esoteric topics. In addition to the two texts mentioned above,
Mantrasena and Saṅghapāla produced texts devoted to Mañjuśrī and other subjects, one of
which teaches that by reciting the names of eight Buddhas women can cease being reborn
as women. There are dhāraṇī texts associated with the Peacock King and, curiously, with
Śāriputra. Perhaps the most important text translated by these Fúnán monks, though, was the
Precious Rain Sūtra (Bǎoyún jīng), of which they produced two different versions.
B. The Second Millenium: From Estate-based to Community-Oriented
The most important theme of Southeast Asian Buddhism during the second millenium is the
progressive ascendency of a particular form of the Buddhist tradition, based on a deliberately
conservative reading of the Pāli canon and disseminated through collaboration between the
rulers and Saṅghas of Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, and Lao states, with considerable input from
Sri Lankan monks. During this period there was no single name for this form of Buddhism,
106 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
which emerged out of contestation between different monastic centers and saṅgha groups; as
we will see below, it is only in the twentieth century that it comes to be labelled “Theravāda”, a
name that itself has explicit programmatic implications. Long before this label became current
we can detect two substantially different models of Buddhist monastic activity, one based on
the management of royally approved estates as ongoing religious and economic foundations,
and the other based on the propagation of Buddhist religious values and ritual practices to
communities of lay followers. In order to appreciate the differences between these two models,
we need to consider the political environment within which these monks found themselves.
Over the course of the first two millenia CE continental Southeast Asia underwent a great
transition in political organization, but it was only in the second millenium that Buddhism
began to play any significant role in this process. Prior to this, the earliest forms of political
organization were tribal chieftaincies, whose authority came from charismatic “men of
prowess”. Such individual or at most family-based rulers exercised military power in part
by their control of wealth and trade, which allowed them to win loyalty by the distribution
of gifts and the delegation of local authority. The petty kings of the Fúnán regime introduced
above might be taken as an example of this style of rule, but their adoption of Chinese forms
of administration meant they were able to establish a lineage that lasted for several generations
— the next step beyond simple tribal chieftaincy. Subsequent centuries witnessed the rise and
fall of numerous ruling lineages in various locations throughout continental Southeast Asia,
the details of which need not detain us here. In the ninth century, however, a distinctly new
stage of governance emerged with the formation of two powerful “charter states”, referred
to in this way because they established memorable precedents that were often appealed to in
later centuries. These were the kingdoms of Pagan (c. 849–1287) and Angkor in Burma and
Cambodia, respectively. Pagan and Angkor were both established in the ninth century, both
entered their greatest phases of institutional brilliance in the eleventh century, both underwent
crises in the fourteenth century, and both collapsed in the mid-fifteenth century.
The Pagan and Angkor kingdoms are both known for their enthusiastic construction
of religious monuments, with the former erecting up to ten thousand Buddhist pagodas,
monasteries, and temples, and the latter creating massive temples and waterworks including
Angkor Wat, said to be the largest religious building in world history. Why this colossal
outpouring of religious construction? One of the features of Angkor political life was the
description of its kings as having special access to divine beings. That is, many of Angkor’s
rulers strove to construct physical edifices greater than that of any of their predecessors, and
to rule from that physical center as the human representative of the highest religious power of
the universe. (The Indian loan word devarāja, “king of the gods”, was used at Angkor to refer
to the deity, almost always Viṣṇu, with whom the king was associated.) The Angkor kings
demonstrated their power by mobilizing the population to create these monuments, which
thus became the cosmic centers from which they wielded their divinely mandated power. One
of the Angkorian kings professed Mahāyāna Buddhism, and although it is intriguing to read
of distinctive doctrines such as śūnyatā in local inscriptions, there is no indication that the
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 107
change in religious ideology implied any change in administrative style. It is not clear from the
historical evidence why the Angkorian state eventually foundered, although one reason seems
to be the lack of any effective restriction on the kings’ desires for ever greater monuments to
their own individual authority. When Nikāya Buddhism arrived in Cambodia in later centuries,
well after the decline of Angkor, one of its selling points was the ideal of the cakravartin ruler,
whose actions were limited by the moral injunctions of the Dharma. We will come back to this
point shortly below.
The Buddhist monuments of Pagan were clearly motivated in part by the desire of the donors
— kings, royal kin, and elite families — to create merit for themselves and their deceased
relatives. Presumably something like the royal cults of Angkor also prevailed at Pagan, with
the construction of religious monuments serving simultaneously to demonstrate the legitimacy
of the Pagan state and to provide ritual centers for the expression of its rule. The situation is
not clear, however; there is no evidence by which to reconstruct the early administrative style
of Pagan, and the stories of the role of Buddhism at Pagan in the twelfth century (involving
the King Anuwratha) have been shown to be later legends. What we can say is that, when the
ruling authorities adopted Nikāya Buddhism they used widely accepted notions of human
lineage connections to help unite as many families and cult groups as possible under their rule.
Not only was the king’s permission necessary for religious institutions to function and survive,
but he became the religion’s chief donor, leading his people in the meritorious construction of
temples and stūpas.
The Buddhist sites of Pagan and the largely Hindu monuments of Angkor both utilized
publically chartered religious foundations to fund and organize monumental religious
construction and agricultural development. That is, abundant inscriptional evidence from both
sites reveals that kings, ruling families, and elites donated resources to Buddhist or Hindu
foundations, establishing those foundations as permanent institutions with ongoing sources
of income and special tax treatment. A typical inscription would describe the land, domestic
animals, and bonded workers donated to the foundation in question, making it responsible
for the maintenance of ritual services at the given temple or monastery, and declaring that the
bequest of resources to the foundation had the force of law for all time. In the early centuries of
the Pagan and Angkor states these religious foundations served as vehicles for the concentration
of wealth in ongoing social institutions, which thus prevented the dispersal of said wealth
over multiple generations. That is, such religious foundations provided a religious aura for
investment and avoided the division of assets among offspring, as would have been the case
for ordinary families. In addition, these foundations created economies of scale for the opening
of new lands to agricultural production, even as they generated additional economic activity
through the creation of new markets for local artisans and craftsmen.
In their early centuries, and especially from the eleventh century on, the Pagan and Angkor
states actively sponsored such religious foundations. At this point both states benefitted from
the foundations’ role in generating economic growth and helping to extend central political
control. From the thirteenth century or so, however, both governments and their successor
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states increasingly worked to limit the power of the foundations, whose combined wealth
represented a challenge to the ruling power of the central state. Thus kings revoked institutional
charters that had been promulgated “improperly” in the past, and the Pagan rulers attempted
to pit austere Sri Lankan clergy against estate-based local saṅghas. Since religious foundations
controlled between one-third and two-thirds of Upper Burma’s arable land by the end of
the thirteenth century, the Pagan government’s need to limit their economic power played a
significant role in the transformation of Southeast Asian Buddhism in the second millenium.
One policy adopted by the Pagan rulers in order to oppose the growing power of religious
foundations was to support the conservative form of Sinhala-oriented Buddhism mentioned
above. In part, this conservativism was energized by dedicated monks from Sri Lanka, as well as
Burmese monks who had studied there, who believed that estate-based Buddhism represented
a degenerate form of the religion. In other words, rather than operating estates, monks should
live by begging. Although there is reliable documentation of friendly collaboration between
members of the Sīhala (i.e., Sinhala-oriented) and Ari saṅghas, in polemical sources the Ari are
accused of various heretical practices, some of which may derive from local religious traditions
and some of which might have involved Mahāyāna or even tantric practices. Although the Ari
thus seem to embody a diverse range of religious practices, for our purposes it is not necessary
to determine exactly what type of religious brotherhood the Ari were — only that they were
criticized by the conservative Saṅgha as practicing an “impure” Dharma and were hounded out
of existence. Their greatest weakness, in addition to their very diversity, may simply have been
their dependence on monastic estates rather than relying directly on the local populace through
begging and community donations.
We do not know very much about when the rulers of Pagan adopted Buddhism as their state
ideology, or even if they ever did so formally. Buddhism supposedly received a great boost in
1057, when the king Anawratha (Aniruddha: r. 1044–77) requested a copy of the Pāli canon
from the Mon ruler Manuha of Thatôn, in Pegu in the far south of the Irrawaddy zone. Manuha
rudely refused, so Anawratha invaded and took him prisoner, then returned to Pagan with both
prisoner and Pāli canon in hand. But this story, which would have us believe that scripturallybased Buddhism was adopted by the Pagan Burmese from the Mon, was actually constructed
out of three much later components. Its earliest building block was the claim made in 1479
by the Burmese king Dhammazedi, that the area around his capital at Pegu, referred to in
Pāli as Rāmaññadesa or “land of the Rāmans” (and interpreted locally as “land of the Mon”),
was actually the Suvarṇabhūmi to which the missionaries Soṇa and Uttara had been sent by
Emperor Aśoka. About two and a half centuries later, sometime during the years 1712–20, a
Burmese writer became the first to record the story of Anawratha’s conquest on behalf of the
Pāli canon. Finally, in the nineteenth century colonial scholars added the inference that the
lofty Buddhist culture of the Mons had had a civilizing impact on Pagan, much as ancient
Greek culture had civilized the Roman empire that conquered it.
Actually, there is ample evidence of interaction between Burmese and Sri Lankan saṅghas
from around Anawratha’s time, but the earliest known case actually involved Burma sending
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 109
monks to Sri Lanka to assist it in re-establishing Buddhism there. In the Chao Phraya zone
as well, interaction between the Thai and Sri Lankan saṅghas was certainly widespread
by the end of the thirteenth century, since it is assumed in the inscription written by King
Ramkhamhaeng in 1292. Although the authenticity of this inscription is a topic of debate,
it depicts Ramkhamhaeng as leading the royalty and nobility of the city of Sukhothai in
reverencing the Buddha, observing Buddhist precepts, and attending religious services. The
city is supposed to have been filled with temples and images, while west of the city was a
monastery built by the king for the Saṅgharāja, or chief of the monks. King Ramkhamhaeng
is described as riding a white elephant to a monastery to pay homage to the Saṅgharāja, who
on occasion would ascend the throne to teach the Dharma to the king. Ramkhamhaeng is also
described as having Buddhist relics excavated and led the people in their worship (rather like
The political history of Buddhism in second-millenium Southeast Asia is well described
elsewhere, and here we need only list the various ways in which Buddhism was used for
political purposes by second-millenium Southeast Asian states. First, states or minor polities
sometimes identified specific Buddhist images, stūpas, or temples as palladia thought to
offer protection for their domains, and military campaigns therefore involved the capture or
destruction of the opponents’ religious symbols and architecture. Second, military campaigns
by the Burmese and Thais against each other sometimes involved depicting the opponents as
heterodox Buddhists, requiring purification by the forces of a righteous Buddhist king. Third,
both during and after their quests for power rulers depicted themselves as Buddhist “universal
rulers”, a term that came to be used with increasing frequency even by very minor princes,
sometimes even as a personal name. Fourth, different Southeast Asian regimes identified their
capitals as the site of Suvarṇabhūmi, or even claimed that the Buddha himself had flown from
India to establish the Dharma there in during his own lifetime.
C. The Modern Era: The Creation of the Thai Buddhist State
For reasons of space, we will skip to the modern era and consider only a single example: that
of Thailand (known until 1939 as “Siam”). With the establishment of the Chakri dynasty at the
end of the eighteenth century Buddhism became fully incorporated into the Thai state, with its
kings identified as universal rulers and its Saṅgha enlisted for the performance of state rituals.
Rāma I (1737–1809; r. 1782–1809), the founding king of this very successful dynasty, came
to power after the brief reign of Taksin (1734–82; r. 1767–82), who had developed a sort of
religious megalomania regarding his own Buddhist attainments even as he abused members
of the Saṅgha. Rāma I was very careful to provide support for the Buddhist establishment,
while at the same time imposing substantial restrictions on it, adopting the position that strict
regulation by the state assisted the Saṅgha in maintaining the requisite standards of disciplinary
110 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
and ethical purity. In this sense his policies resemble those of Emperor Wǔ of the Liáng and
other pro-Buddhist East Asian rulers.
The fourth ruler of the Chakri dynasty, King Mongkut (Rama IV; 1804–68; r. 1851–68), had
been a monk for 27 years prior to ascending the throne. As a monk he had distinguished himself
by energetically engaging with the Buddhist tradition, becoming widely knowledgeable in Pāli
scholarship, and developing a vigorous critique of traditional Thai Buddhism. In order to recreate
what he considered to be the Buddha’s original style of practice, he founded the Dhammayut
order of monks, which has enjoyed very strong support from the throne and aristocracy up to
the present, in spite of the small number of monasteries it controls. (The predominant order of
Thai Buddhist monks is called the Mahanikai [Mahānikāya].) Mongkut had a strong rationalist
streak, and he longed to rid the religion of what he felt were its supernaturalistic excesses — an
attitude that was only reinforced by his subsequent contacts with Christian missionaries and
diplomats. Nevertheless, he also drew deeply on the historical connection between Thailand
and Buddhism. It was he who discovered the famous inscription attributed to Ramkhamhaeng,
which is at least as important in the modern consciousness as the first example of Thai writing
as it is for the history Buddhism and the Thai state. In addition, Mongkut identified a specific
location just west of modern Bangkok as the actual location where Aśoka’s missionaries Soṇa
and Uttara taught, and after he became king he had the stūpa there remodelled and renamed
as Phra Pathom Chedi (P: paṭhama cetiya), the Holy First Reliquary. Mongkut avoided any
controversial moves after he became king, but his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V; 1853–1910;
r. 1868-1910) was eventually able to contribute greatly to the institutionalization of Buddhism
as Thailand’s state religion.
Concluding Inferences
Even the brief discussion given above should be enough to remind us of the overwhelming
volume of data we have for Buddhism in East Asia, no doubt thousands of times as much as
that for Southeast Asian Buddhism. The East Asian data is also exceptional for beginning at the
beginning, so to speak, providing us with so many resources concerning East Asian Buddhism
during the early centuries of the common era. We have copious written materials beginning
only a century or so after the initial arrival of Buddhism in the Chinese cultural realm, and
they include an impressive array of literary genres of both secular and religious literature. The
latter category includes dynastic histories, poetic anthologies, gazetteers, and popular fiction,
each of which depicts a different facet of the Buddhist tradition. There are archaeological finds
indicating the presence of Buddhism from the second century of the common era onward
in China, wooden temple buildings from the seventh century still preserved in Japan, and
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 111
paintings on silk and paper from the same time or only slightly later preserved in the cave at
Dūnhuáng, to mention only a few of the most prominent examples.
In contrast, for the first millenium of Southeast Asian Buddhism we have only a few
inscriptions on stone and metal, a variety of archaeological remains and art historical artifacts,
and scattered references in Chinese texts. We can do little more than infer the existence of
imported Buddhist texts for this early period, and there is no indication of how Buddhism was
interpreted in Southeast Asia, nor any hint of the production of local compositions. Not only
is direct evidence for Buddhism in the first millenium extremely limited, neither is it backed
up by the kinds of secular sources that are available for East Asia. And to make matters even
worse, the Southeast Asian sources are distributed quite unevenly, with yawning gaps between
both the types of material available and the sites from which they derive. The underlying
reason for this paucity of information is that none of the cultures of continental Southeast Asia
had its own writing system and and literary tradition prior to the arrival of Buddhism.
There is far more data for Southeast Asian Buddhism during the second millenium, of
course, and there was considerable literary productivity in Pagan and the later Burmese
regimes, in northern and central Thailand, and in Cambodia and Laos. Unfortunately, only
a very small percentage of this locally produced literature has been introduced (let alone
translated) in western-language sources. And, although there is growing evidence from both
religious and secular sources for Southeast Asian Buddhism with the passage of time, the same
is also true for Buddhism in East Asia. Indeed, given the explosion of woodblock printing in
second-millenium East Asia, the volume of data for Buddhism there during that period may
exceed that for Southeast Asian Buddhism by an even greater ratio than before.
And it is not just the differential of available data: Buddhism in East Asia is in a certain
way earlier than that in Southeast Asia. This is an intentionally contentious way of putting it,
to be sure — since most writers would describe the Theravāda Buddhism of Southeast Asia as
being earlier than the Mahāyāna Buddhism of East Asia, following a priori assumptions about
the evolution of Indian Buddhist schools. My point is that — to use a biological metaphor
— Buddhism matured earlier in East Asia than it did in Southeast Asia. For East Asia we know
of active missionary work from the second century, the emergence of different theories of
emptiness by the late fourth century, and the formation of distinctive schools of thought from
the early fifth century. By about this time Chinese translations of Buddhist texts achieved such
levels of quantity and variety that a firm foundation was provided for the dissemination of the
tradition throughout East Asia, and, as a result of this and the political uses of Buddhism by
kings and governments, it was from the fourth to seventh centuries that we can observe the
efflorescence of Buddhism in the Three Kingdoms of Korea and in the Yamato realm of early
In contrast, for Southeast Asia we can say only that Buddhism reached there in the early
centuries of the common era, that it achieved some currency in political centers from the fifth
century on, and that a growing inventory of Pāli and Sanskrit texts were present from about
the same time. We can also note that both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna texts were attested in
112 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
the sixth century, with the former limited to the eastern side of the the subcontinent, i.e., the
Mekong River and coastal zones. We have noted that a single text composed in ninth-century
Sri Lanka was quoted in Southeast Asian inscriptions, as well as that quotations from a wide
spectrum of Pāli canonical sources were available by the end of the first millenium. However,
the Pāli and Sanskrit terminology of the inscriptions, whether Mahāyāna or not, is limited to
the conventional use of widely known rubrics, slogans, and key terms, and it is difficult to infer
from them anything more than a general awareness of the most basic Buddhist doctrines.
In addition to this textual data, there is an assortment of Buddhist images from early
Southeast Asia, although none are definitively dated to earlier than the fifth century CE. From
about this same time we have archaeological remains of buildings suggesting the existence of
functioning Buddhist saṅghas, plus stūpas suggesting veneration for departed worthies. Finally,
and most important, we have ample evidence of what I have called estate-based Buddhism, in
which local saṅghas were made caretakers of substantial financial resources in exchange for
undertaking land reclamation projects and managing agriculturally based estates. Given the
inscriptional data it is certain that royal and elite families were provided with ritual services
and presumably religious instruction, but there is no evidence whatsoever of any efforts to
disseminate Buddhism among other social classes.
For dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists and apologists for monastic lineages and their lay
adherents who identify themselves using the label “Theravāda”, these may constitute adequate
grounds for justifying a continuous story line. But these scattered reference points only provide
a shadowy impression at best, a murky outline with virtually no indication of specific color or
content. Southeast Asian Buddhism may indeed represent the best possible modern recreation
of ancient Buddhist traditions, but it is nevertheless a modern recreation, and certainly not
equivalent to ancient Indian Buddhism itself. East Asian saṅghas have similarly venerable
ordination lineages, and their modern representatives work to recreate the Buddhist tradition
in ways less straightforward than the approach of their Southeast Asian brethren, which I
characterize as “cleaving to the canon”.
In addition to its relatively late maturation, the manner in which Southeast Asian Buddhism
developed in the second millenium was profoundly different from that in East Asia. Various
efforts at the revitalization or purification of Southeast Asian Buddhism during this period
led to a shared sense of orthodoxy, beginning with the opposition to the Ari monks of Pagan,
whose combination of local and Buddhist religious practices was supposedly decried as
heterodox and licentious by conservative saṅgha members. The saṅghas of Sri Lanka, Burma,
and Thailand actively reinforced one other, and even in Cambodia the earlier prevalence of
the Mahāyāna gave way to the shared orthodoxy. Buddhists in Southeast Asia manifested
an ever-increasing tendency to hold up the Pāli canon as the universal standard for religious
behavior, and this model of cleaving to the canon as the ultimate standard for defining what
proper Buddhist belief and practice should be — the near-fundamentalist position that the
Pāli canon represented the text of the Buddha’s teachings, not only verbatim but complete,
given the rejection of Mahāyāna sūtras as inauthentic — became the standard by which all
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 113
Buddhism in Southeast Asia would be judged. As an outgrowth of these developments, modern
Southeast Asian Buddhist authorities and organizations make the religious claim — perfectly
legitimate as a religious position but even so amenable to our critique — that they represent the
“original” form of Buddhism, labelled “Theravāda” from the early twentieth century to render
this religious posture more believable. However, like any human religion this is a constructed
In sharp contrast to the second-millenium model of cleaving to the canon in Southeast
Asian Buddhism, the pattern by which Buddhism was disseminated to and throughout East
Asia is best described by metaphors of biological metabolism. That is, East Asia ingested the
input from India and Central Asia via the translation enterprise, which was supported through
a combination of state projects and broadly based support from communities of devotees.
Over the course of time successive waves of texts from the “western region” were consumed
by translation, an act of cultural digestion that converted the Indic and Central Asian source
material into nutrients that could be disseminated throughout the East Asian cultural body. With
each new infusion of Buddhist texts, different types of religious sustenance spread throughout
the region, leading to the growth of new doctrinal interpretations and new ritual approaches.
Effectively, translation represented a powerful source of regenerative energy for East Asian
Buddhism, allowing it to incorporate new religious developments into its very being. During
the second millenium the translation enterprise lost its pivotal position, but by this time
East Asian Buddhism had achieved sufficient energy to continue the processes of creative
interpretation, which included the composition of apocryphal scriptures, Chán dialogues and
gōng’àn (J: kōan) precedent anthologies, and many other genres of religious literature.
There is a corollary to this comparison that seems useful, although at this point it is still
speculative. That is, I have described the Southeast Asian pattern of cleaving to the canon as
a historical process of religious development that involved multiple neighboring cultures, but
this process resembles a very different type of cultural pattern, the Buddhist understanding
of individual spiritual cultivation. Just as Southeast Asian saṅghas strove to reach communal
perfection by suppressing practices of other religious communities they considered impure,
so did individual Buddhist practitioners there seek spiritual liberation by the progressive
elimination of defilements. What is implied here is a homology existing in the given societies
between conceptions of the individual human body/person and the broader social body/
There is a striking parallel to this homology in the East Asian domain. I have described the
model by which East Asian Buddhism developed by the metaphor of biological metabolism,
and what this means is that the individual participants, as well as loosely organized groups
and other types of communities, interacted with Buddhist sources in a characteristic fashion.
The cornucopia of Buddhist scriptures was so vast, and so variegated, that each individual and
group effectively engaged in a hermeneutic quest, seeking to find the fundamental principles
by which the treasures of Buddhism could be understood and put into practice. Perhaps the
cultural legacy of the Chinese philosophical tradition played a role here, in implying that the
114 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
appropriate goal for each practitioner and group was one of understanding. In any case, there
are countless stories of monks who read through the canon until they chanced upon a text, or
even a line, that somehow opened up the entire storehouse of Buddhist treasures for them.
We may also remember monks such as Tiāntái Zhìyǐ or Hōnen, who used specific scriptures
as their guides to the entire Buddhist tradition. The Chán/Sŏn/Zen/Thiền tradition, of course,
transmits anecdotes of monks who tried to find the key to Buddhist wisdom in this way, only
to give up the reading of scriptures and turn to the pursuit of meditation practice. Even here,
though, the goal was to understand one’s own existential situation as a human being cycling
through saṃsāra, and the introspective examination of the “critical phrases” of gōng’àns or
kōans amounted to a different form of the same hermeneutic quest. Chán spiritual cultivation
was most commonly interpreted as a process of finding the Buddha within oneself, or — to
use the school’s own rhetoric — as a process of recognizing that one already is Buddha and
therefore has no “self-perfecting” work to do. What was going on in all these very different
cases is that East Asian Buddhists were working to plumb the very depths of the Buddhist
religion, each striving to achieve realization of the most profound teachings.
As with the Southeast Asian case described just above, the East Asian homology is between
individual spiritual cultivation and the shared policies of religious groups. Individuals and
groups sought within the scriptures, and within themselves, for the fundamental keys of
Buddhism. Similarly, relations between individual and groups in East Asian Buddhism were
most often cast in terms of the profundity or shallowness of each other’s understandings. To be
sure, there are numerous cases in which East Asian Buddhist groups were criticized for failing
to uphold proper standards of morality, but it was far more common for depth of understanding
to be the primary topic of dispute. As Mahāyāna Buddhists, East Asian practitioners and groups
wanted to achieve the most profound realization of Śākyamuni — but it never occurred to
them that they should recreate exactly the style of social practice that obtained at the time of
the Buddha himself. In East Asia one could invoke the idealized age of the ancient sages, but
never attempt to recreate it in the historical present.
To put things in the simplest terms, the characteristic style of Southeast Asian Buddhism
was a process of purification, while that of East Asian Buddhism was one of discovery. On the
individual level we may associate the former style with ascetic self-control and the attainment
of nirvāṅa as a state beyond defilements, and on the communal level with campaigns for
orthodoxy and the elimination of heterodox practices. Similarly, on the individual level we
may associate the latter style with introspective analysis and the attainment of insight into
the fundamental emptiness of the world and all its distinctions, and on the communal level
with competitive campaigns for hegemonic recognition of doctrinal supremacy. This set of
distinctions clearly resonates with the gradual/sudden polarity so often discussed with regard
to Chinese Chán, and even though it would be unwise to reduce the nuances involved to
this one format it still seems to me that the sudden/insight/wisdom complex is much more
fundamentally represented in East Asian Buddhism than the gradual/concentration/liberation
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 115
Incidentally, we can also note how misplaced were the efforts of earlier scholarship to
evaluate the degree of fidelity to Indian Buddhist models displayed in East Asian Buddhist
texts and traditions. In my understanding the greatest historical value of the East Asian
material lies in showing the interaction between the South and East Asian cultural and religious
systems from an early date. In other words, the most valuable aspects of East Asian Buddhist
materials are not the overlaps and equivalences with Indian precedents, but the disjunctions
and differences. The lack of similar data for Southeast Asian Buddhism should remind us of
how precious the East Asian materials are — exactly the sort of realization we could not have
achieved without temporarily “defamiliarizing” ourselves with our subject matter!
In an entirely different vein, there are two ways in which the preceding discussion of
Southeast Asian Buddhism can contribute to the study of East Asian Buddhism. These concern
the cultural role of monastic estates and the political dimensions of the religion.
The aspect of Southeast Asian Buddhism that is most clearly manifested in the available
inscriptions is the role of religious foundations. These involved the permanent dedication of
agricultural lands, domestic animals, and human laborers to particular monastic institutions,
the saṅghas of which were thus identified as the proprietors of the resulting estate-supported
monastery. Now, the estate-based monastery is well known throughout East Asia, and indeed
throughout the Buddhist world, but nowhere is its role within society described so well as
in recent scholarship on Southeast Asia. That is, in Pagan and Angkor, and perhaps also in
Champa and Dai Viet, such institutions had a number of important social functions. They
operated as agencies of land reclamation and development, opening up new areas to agriculture,
and implementing, improving, and extending irrigation systems. They served as landlords and
project overseers, supervising labor and ensuring that rents and other proceeds devolved to
the monastery. In one sense the foundation’s activities were undertaken in lieu of the state,
and monastic control limited or undercut direct control by the state itself. This was of course
a trade-off for both sides, for in another sense such monastic activities were undertaken on
behalf of the state, for whom the monks provided ritual services. Indeed, even as the saṅgha
provided managerial oversight for its estates, the foundation was designed for the ongoing
financial support of ritual protection of the king and his state, as well as healing services for the
king and his royal family. In this stage of institutional development — that is, no longer petty
kings with unstable lineages but early states with at least basic bureaucracies — the ruler was
still indispensable to the system. The king was not only military leader and chief of the state’s
administrative hierarchy, who controlled both religious and secular patronage throughout his
realm. Significantly for our purposes, he also occupied the position of ritual intermediary
between kingdom and cosmos.
There has long been an awareness that Buddhist monastic estates played a role in East Asian
economic development, especially in first-millenium China. However, as far as I am aware
no scholar has considered the positive contribution of monastic estates in such an integrated
fashion as has been done for Southeast Asian Buddhism. Donations to monastic institutions in
China are invariably depicted as having economically negative impact and as a waste of the
116 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
society’s precious resources. At best, Chinese monastic estates have been considered as abortive
stepping-stones to capitalism, an issue that is inappropriate to the historical period involved.
In addition, although Japanese Buddhist monasteries and saṅgha groups are recognized as
having had certain functions involving agricultural development and land management, these
are frequently discussed in terms of the supposed degeneration of Buddhism, once a purely
spiritual religious community, into a worldly shell devoted to profit and personal advantage.
And, to the extent that early monastic institutions were controlled by aristocratic families, they
are said to have already departed from the ideal of the Buddha’s time when the saṅgha lived
apart from society.
The Southeast Asian data suggests that estate-based Buddhism involved something far
more significant than religious degeneration and the venal pursuit of personal profit. Rather,
in societies that were only developing their basic modes of governance and the distribution
of economic and political authority, the religious sanction offered by a sacred institution such
as the Buddhist saṅgha would have been extremely important. Instead of having agricultural
and other productive assets controlled by rulers or elite individuals, or even by ruling-house or
elite-family lineages, there must have been a widely recognized value in assigning such assets
to religious collectivities. This would have removed the assets from direct ruler or elite control,
but it would also have made them less susceptible to the personalistic and family-driven
conflicts that always accompanied claims for political power. Recall that we are considering
pre-monetary societies, for whom the transmission of assets from one generation to the next
was still in the process of being subjected to orderly conventions. In other words, just as
religious charisma helped cement the bonds of political unification, so religious authority was
vitally important for the productive control of agricultural assets at a certain stage of social
What this implies ,for example, is that the control of monasteries by aristocratic families in
Asuka Japan was not merely a form of conspicuous display, a means for the families involved
to demonstrate their wealth and authority. Nor did the monasteries serve only as ritual sites,
providing funerary and memorial services for family members in lieu of the grandiose tumuli
(kofun 古墳) that the government had just prohibited — as important as these functions were
at the time. If the Southeast Asian model can be applied to East Asia, then these uji-dera 氏寺
served as important fiduciary institutions that allowed for the concentration of resources with
a degree of religious protection from interference from the state or competing families. The
importance of this fiduciary role may not be readily apparent in the early twenty-first century,
with all our banks, savings cooperatives, and other financial institutions institutions handling
these matters, but it would have been distinctly important at a certain point in the development
of all premodern societies. One economic historian even refers to the estate-based form of the
religion at Pagan from the eleventh century on as “redistributional Buddhism”, based on the
role it played in centralized economic and social control. The king effectively acted as chief
donor, unifying his subjects’ religious, political, and economic pursuits by example, moral
suasion, and coercion. Thus the contribution of Buddhism was to provide both an ideological
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 117
justification and an institutional framework for the consolidation of financial assets. Seen
from this perspective, any amounts spent by the Saṅgha on religious services and teaching
activities etc., could be written off (to describe the issue only in bookkeeping terms) as a type
of administrative overhead. And, since those religious services and teaching activities would
also have served to domesticate the recipient social groups into state citizens, there were other
advantages as well.
The second aspect of Southeast Asian Buddhism to consider here is its role in providing
a language of discourse about power, both political and cosmological. Through multiple
collaborations between saṅghas who worked to convert local populations to Buddhist morality
and governing regimes that identified themselves as religious states led by cakravartin rulers,
a conservative tradition of textually based Buddhism came to dominate Southeast Asian
Buddhism. We can readily detect partnerships between rulers and saṅghas, in which a complex
calculus of mutual advantages emerged. Rulers presented themselves as cakravartin kings in
order to claim the grandeur that image implied — but also to announce to local elites and the
populations they governed that they would accept the constraints of Buddhist morality for
their own actions as well, rather than operating with the willful disregard shown by the selfindulgent and virtually unrestrained rulers of Angkor, for example. At the same time, Buddhist
saṅghas increasingly turned their attention to propagating Buddhism among local populations,
a process that led eventually to the creation of village temples and temple schools throughout
the region by the end of the eighteenth century. Of course, part of the reason Buddhist saṅghas
were turning to local proselytization was that governments were restricting their support
through monastic estates and permanent religious foundations of the sort described above.
Whatever the causes of these new developments, the overall result at the end of the second
millenium was the existence of several states — Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos —
whose governments and dominant population groups identified themselves as Buddhist.
The role that Buddhism played in Southeast Asian political life is very instructive for
students of Buddhism in East Asia. In neither region does Buddhism ever become the source
of administrative structure, or even bureaucratic expertise, as Confucianism did for East
Asia and Brahmanic culture for Southeast Asia. Of course, in East Asia the Chinese imperial
administrative structure was Legalist in origin, but it came to be staffed by Confucians and
has come to be thought of as part of the Confucian legacy. In Southeast Asia administrative
strategies seem to have been either adopted from Brahmanical advisors or developed locally —
the evidence of the specific Indian contribution is frequently lacking, but in any case Buddhist
ideas, methods, or personnel never became integral to the nuts-and-bolts of governance. In
addition, the Southeast Asian evidence is clear that, where Buddhism was adopted as state
ideology, this only occurred after the initial establishment of governmental control and
administrative systems. To be sure, in some cases there was a strongly religious dimension
to propaganda strategies, as when Burmese or Thai states each strove to generate enthusiasm
for attacks on the other by claims of Buddhist purity for their own side and the allegation of
heterodoxy on that of their opponents. As with the nominally universalist religion Christianity
118 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
in early modern Europe, the fact that Buddhist doctrine seems to provide no support for interstate warfare or inter-ethnic rivalry did not prevent the religion from being used in exactly this
The Southeast Asian example also provides insight into an aspect of East Asian religious
history that has been misinterpreted, or which has not been documented well enough, in studies
to date. There are numerous East Asian regimes, ruling lineages, and individual monarchs
who used Buddhism to construct unifying religious cosmologies for themselves and their
states’ citizenry. Numerically speaking, this probably happened more often — or at least was
maintained more successfully — in the satellite cultures of East Asia and not in the Chinese
heartland areas of the Yellow and Yángzǐ River zones. The greatest general difference between
the Chinese and Southeast Asian cases, and between the Chinese and the satellite culture cases
as well, was the distinction made between the religious and secular realms in the former, and the
comparative lack of any such distinction in the latter. Recall that, from the time of Huìyuǎn in
the early fifth century the Saṅgha was thought to have been not of this world, and thus beyond
the proper grasp of kings and civilian authorities. To be sure, from that point onward Chinese
governments asserted greater and greater control over the Buddhist clergy and their activities,
and as we have noted above some of the most pro-Buddhist rulers in both East and Southeast
Asia regulated the Saṅgha most heavily. In Chinese thought, however, there was an endemic
pattern of dualistic assumptions — whether between worldly and transcendent, defiled and
pure, substance and function — that eventually crystallized in the xenophobic native/foreign
dichotomy of second-millenium times. In contrast, the sharp divisions of Southeast Asian
culture were between Burmese and Thai, or Thai and Vietnamese, but never between local and
Buddhist, and certainly never between cakravartin and Buddha.
This last absence of any sharp dichotomy between transcendence and power in Southeast
Asian Buddhism is most instructive. To be sure, modern scholars of Southeast Asian Buddhism
have debated whether or not the cakravartin and the Buddha derive from the same ultimate
cosmological source, but my argument here is not dependent on there being no distinction
whatsoever between the two. Obviously, no king is the Buddha, and no Buddha functions as
king. In a very profound sense the Buddha is far more important than any short-term ruler
of this world — but the rulers are much more commonly encountered, and their powers to
attack, reward, and punish have a much more immediate impact. The point is that, just as the
rulers of Angkor seem to have identified themselves as closely as possible with Hindu deities,
some Southeast Asian rulers attempted to identify themselves as closely as possible as devout
cakravartins leading both the ordained and lay components of their states in the Buddhist
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 119
Bibliographical Annotations
Southeast Asian studies is a relatively new field, having begun in the encounters that took place
between colonial administrators, European scholars, and local authorities in the latter part of
the nineteenth century. Given the fractured political map and tortuous military history of the
region, the field has matured in fits and starts, and many of the most widely cited secondary
works repeat theories that emerged out of romantic misinformation and sectarian hagiography.
Since time is required for new interpretations to be formulated, evaluated, and revised for
adoption across the field, and since there are yawning gaps in the primary data, it is impossible
to find lucid and up-to-date explanations of all of the most important facets of the story. As a
specialist in East Asian rather than Southeast Asian Buddhism, the following are the readings
that I have found most useful for a critical historical understanding.
The multi-volume Cambridge History of Southeast Asia (Tarling, 1999) is probably the
best starting point for any reading on most subjects involving the region, including religion.
For the archaeology of prehistorical and early historical Southeast Asia, Higham 2002 is an
authoritative and readable guide for all parts of the subcontinent except Burma. For example,
Higham (2002, 255) introduces the comb mentioned here (see p. 7); it is a chapter in the
Cambridge History, de Casparis and Mabbett (1999, 294), which suggests that the radiocarbon
dating is ambiguous. Also, the inference regarding the adoption of “Buddhism and centralised
political authority” and the scale of the Nakhon Pathom settlement are drawn from Higham
(2002, 255 and 257).
Since Higham (2002) is oddly silent on the archaeology of Burma, for that region see the
concise summary in Gutman and Hudson (2004) and the exhaustively documented analysis in
Hudson (2004). For one of the most exciting publications in recent Southeast Asian studies,
see Aung-Thwin (2005), which shows that the commonly encountered description of the
Pagan King Anuwartha’s 1057 conquest of a Mon polity at Thaton (Aung-Thwin uses the
Pāli forms Aniruddha and Thatôn), as well as the existence of any significant Mon polity
anywhere in Lower Burma around the end of the first millenium, is based on a modern
misreading of late legendary accounts. Aung-Thwin’s rejection of what he calls the “Mon
paradigm” is too new to have made much impact on the study of Thai history, but the judicious
reader may use it to evaluate the very sensible and quite readable account found in Wyatt
(1982), still the best survey of Thai history available. Similarly, I also strongly recommend
Chandler 2000 for Cambodian history and Taylor (1983) for Vietnamese history. (However,
Taylor’s traditionalistic understanding of Vietnamese Buddhism needs to be modified by the
authoritative analysis in Nguyen 1997.) Higham (2001) is a concise and useful guide to the
ancient Cambodian civilization of Angkor. The dates used here for Pagan, c. 849–1287, are
taken from Day (1996, 389).
The most comprehensive guide to the political and cultural development of continental
Southeast Asia is without question Lieberman (2003), which presents exhaustive analyses of
120 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
the processes of state formation in what is now Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Lieberman’s ultimate goal, to demonstrate chronological synchronicities between cycles of
political consolidation in continental Southeast Asia, Japan, Russia, and France, will not be
achieved until the publication of his somewhat delayed second volume, but even this one
volume is both brilliant and comprehensive. I have drawn heavily from Lieberman, borrowing
the terminology of “charter states” and adopting his perspective on state formation throughout
the region. Specifically, the observation that agricultural expansion to the deltas only occurred
in the second millenium, especially the fifteenth century (see p. 5), is based on Lieberman’s
suggestion (49–52) that the periods of most rapid growth were 1450–1560 and 1720–1820.
In addition, the remarks about the revocation of improperly promulgated charters and the
proportion of land held by religious foundations (p. 11) are from Lieberman, 120. Incidentally,
in a personal e-mail communication (September 3, 2007) Lieberman has pointed out that in
Southeast Asia Buddhism became the official state cult with no literate rival, whereas in East
Asia Buddhism was marginalized/rivalled by differing combinations of Confucianism and
Shintō. As he suggests, this is a major distinction that begs for analysis.
Although I generally agree with Lieberman’s perspective on state formation, for different
perspectives on the terminologies of state and polity in Southeast Asian studies also see
the measured review of previous scholarship in Bentley (1986). For consideration of the
complexities of kinship relationships in state formation, see Day (1996). Although the inference
that, for Línyì, Sanskritization was a method by which to avoid Chinese pressure is mine (p. 8),
I draw on Higham (who seems to rely on Maspero, 274) for the basic information about Línyì.
On the regime’s history of plundering Chinese wealth, see Taylor (Tarling 1999, 1:154). On
Nāgasena 那伽仙, one of the monks from Southeast Asia active in southern China, see Harris
(2005) and Mochizuki (5:4490b-c).
Since Southeast Asian studies is still working to throw off the dual yokes of colonial
imagination and sectarian hagiography, it is difficult to find secondary works on Buddhism
there that do not simply repeat legendary accounts. One of the best treatments of Buddhism in
any Southeast Asian national tradition is that on its Cambodian iteration, Harris (2005), and
it is unfortunate that similar resources do not exist yet for Burma and Thailand. My starting
point for the Thai tradition, and indeed for the history of Southeast Asian Buddhism in general,
has been Prapod (1990). This Ph.D. dissertation, only now being prepared for publication,
examines the inscriptional evidence for Buddhism in Southeast Asia and then charts the
evolution of Buddhism in the Thai states up to the present. For example, the observation on
p. 8 that Sanskrit inscriptions were used in Sri Lanka even when the language of Buddhist
canonical sources was Pāli, and the reference to the Mahāyāna quotation inscription form
Kedah, Malaysia, are from Prapod (1990, 104 and 116-17), respectively. Just below, on p.
8, the Sri Lankan text represented in Southeast Asian inscriptions is the Telakaṭāhagāthā,
which was edited for publication in the Journal of the Pāli Text Society (Goonaratne, 1884).
See Prapod (1990, 119-21) and see the web site http://www.sub.uni-goettingen.de/ebene_1/
findolo/gretil/2_pali/7_poe/telaka_u.htm for an electronic version of this text.
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 121
Prapod’s work decisively undercuts older accounts of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, such
as those offered in Ray (1936 and 1946). For its time, Ray’s scholarship was excellent, and
his works contain a great deal of useful information, but using them requires working against
the grain of his apologetic goal. Readers will note that my attention to the cakravartin ideal
overlaps in many ways with Tambiah (1976), who provides an excellent summary of relevant
Buddhist canonical sources and the Aśokan inscriptions. However, Tambiah provides very little
new information for Buddhism in Southeast Asia prior to the Bangkok period, and he seems
to be unaware of the significant differences between the image of Aśoka in the inscriptions
(which were effectively unknown from shortly after Aśoka’s death until modern times) and in
Buddhist hagiography. See the very measured and insightful comments on Tambiah’s work in
Keyes (1978). For King Mongkut and modern Thai Buddhism I have used Keyes (1989), with
reference to Wyatt (1982).
On the political use of Sanskrit in Southeast Asia and the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” (see p. 9)
I have followed the scintillating thesis of Sheldon Pollock (1996, 1998, 2000, and 2006, of
which see in particular 1996, 217-230), which holds great promise for rethinking the shop-worn
paradigm of indianization. Although Pollack suggests that this use of Sanskrit in Southeast Asia
postdated that of southern South Asia by perhaps a century, see the evidence introduced here
for Línyì. More substantively, see Pollock’s comment (1996, 234-235) that “indianization” in
Southeast Asia would have been no different from that in the Indian subcontinent, as well as
his comments on the common provenance and problems of indianization, romanization, and
sinicization, etc. (1998, 32-33). Pollock has an inexplicable aversion to the term legitimation
(1996, 236-237), and Johannes Bronkhorst (forthcoming) has shown that Sanskrit usage in
Southeast Asia was almost certainly maintained by Brahmin specialists, presumably localized
lineages with only distant connections to the Indian subcontinent. Even with these minor
corrections, though, Pollock’s work has implications beyond South and Southeast Asia (he
sometimes uses “Southern Asia” to encompass these two regions), in that he suggests a process
of vernacularization beginning around 1000 CE by which early modern culture was created,
not simply as the collision between global and local cultures but in complex processes of
inter-relationships and contention. Incidentally, the observation that western Indian scripts are
used in some Southeast Asian inscriptions (p. 8) is from Pollock (1996, 218-219); indeed, his
comments on paleographic issues must be taken account into any future treatment of Southeast
Asian inscriptions, Buddhist or otherwise.
122 • Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal Volume 22 (2009)
Aung-Thwin, Michael A. 2005. The Mists of Rāmañña: The Legend that Was Lower Burma.
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Bentley, G. Carter. 1986. Indigenous States of Southeast Asia. Annual Review of Anthropology
Bronkhorst, Johannes. forthcoming. The spread of Sanskrit.
de Casparis, J. G., and I. W. Mabbett. 1999. Religion and Popular Beliefs of Southeast Asia
before c. 1500. Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, vol. 1, From early times to c. 1500.
Ed. N. Tarling. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Reprint,
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 276-339. (Page references are
to reprint edition.)
Chandler, David. 2000. A History of Cambodia. 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press.
Day, Tony. 1996. Ties that (Un)Bind: Families and States in Premodern Southeast Asia.
Journal of Asian Studies 55:384-409.
Harris, Ian. 2005. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. Honolulu: University of
Hawai‘i Press.
Higham, Charles. 2001. The Civilization of Angkor. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Higham, Charles. 2002. Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia. Bangkok: River
Hudson, Bob. 2004. The Origins of Bagan: The Archaeological Landscape of Upper Burma
to AD 1300. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Sydney.
Keyes, Charles F. 1978. Structure and History in the Study of the Relationship Between
Theravāda Buddhism and Political Order. Numen 25(2):156-70.
Keyes, Charles F. 1989. Buddhist Politics and Their Revolutionary Origins in Thailand.
International Political Science Review 10(2):121-42.
Lieberman, Victor. 2003. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830:
v. 1: Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University
Nguyen, Tu Cuong. 1997. Zen in Medieval Vietnam: A Study and Translation of the Thiè̂n
uyẻ̂n tập anh. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Pollock, Sheldon. 1996. The Sanskrit Cosmopolis, a.d. 300-1300: Transculturation,
Vernacularization, and the Question of Ideology. Ideology and Status of Sanskrit:
Contributions to the History of the Sanskrit Language. Ed. Jan E. M. Houben. Leiden:
E. J. Brill. 197-247.
Pollock, Sheldon. 1998. The cosmopolitan vernacular. Journal of Asian Studies 57(1):6-37.
Comparing East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhism • 123
Pollock. Sheldon. 2000. Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History. Public Culture 12(3): 591625.
Pollock. Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture,
and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Prapod Assavavirulhakarn. 1990. The Ascendency of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast
Asia. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California.
Ray, Niharranjan. 1936. Sanskrit Buddhism in Burma. Amsterdam: H. J. Paris.
Ray, Niharranjan. 1946. An Introduction to the Study of Theravāda Buddhism in Burma: A
Study in Indo-Burmese Historical and Cultural Relations from the Earliest Tmes to the
British Conquest. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.
Tarling, Nicholas. 1999. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. (2 vols) Cambridge and
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Reprint (4 vols), Cambridge and New
York: Cambridge University Press. (Page references are to reprint edition.)
Taylor, Keith Weller. 1983. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wyatt, David K. 1982. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven and London: Yale University
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